The Next ….

April 28

We’ve just finished with one draft, time to get ready for the next.

You’re thinking NBA, perhaps? No. June 7th is the baseball draft. As with football, I will not prepare a mock draft. It makes even less sense to do so when there are 50 rounds.

I won’t belabor the fact that I called the Giants’ selection of Buster Posey a few years ago. That’s water under the bridge. But I can tell you who the #1 pick of the Washington Nationals will be this year, barring a dispute over money.

Last year, they snagged a premier pitching prospect in Stephen Strasburg. This year, they will take the most-hyped position player since Alex Rodriguez. He’s been called the Lebron James of baseball, the “Chosen One,” as detailed last year in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Bryce Harper, meet Clint Hurdle and Bruce Hardy.

Some say Bryce will be the Todd Marinovich of baseball, a one-dimensional young man who has been groomed by pushy parents since he was a toddler to play ball and make lots of money. He IS just 17. Will history repeat itself, or are some critics overdosing on Hatorade?

Bryce is finishing his first season as catcher for College of Southern Nevada. You might not have seen him play yet, and your eyebrows are already raised. 17, in junior college? 17, and eligible for the baseball draft? How can this happen?

It can happen because Bryce got his GED, allowing him to skip his final two years of high school in Las Vegas, and he went straight to Junior College. His father said high school was boring him. Welllll, welcome to the club, kid. Bryce had a ticket out because of his baseball talent, and it is true that high school baseball wasn’t enough of a challenge for him anymore.

Thanks to Sports Illustrated and ESPN, Bryce’s legend already looms large.

He hit .626 as a sophomore in high school, the first soph to be named an All-American by Baseball America. He has been known to play up to 170 games a year with various teams. He hit a 502-foot home run during a showcase last year at Tropicana Field, a record for that stadium. He hit it with a composite metal bat, but it was still eye-popping for a teen. The ball would have gone farther, but it hit the back wall of the dome above right field.

Harper has been clocked as a pitcher throwing 96 miles an hour, but is primarily a catcher. At that position he has been videotaped throwing out would-be base stealers at second base from his knees. He sounds like the second coming of Sid Finch, except now we have YouTube and ESPN to verify.

If all that doesn’t get your attention, how about his JC stats at College of Southern Nevada so far this season? Against players two or three years older, he is batting .410 with 21 home runs in 47 games and, oh yes, 15 stolen bases. Sid Finch? Feh!

You can go online and find numerous tapes of Bryce, doing the things I just talked about. Here’s the one thing that really stands out: his bat speed is unbelievable, the best I’ve seen this side of Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield. His swing has been honed from the time he was three. Sounds almost Tiger-like.

His mom and dad don’t come across on camera as stage parents, but their focus is clear. They have enabled him to get out of his final two years of high school, and they haven’t turned away from national attention, although I give them credit for passing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” when he made the SI cover. Who’s to say how any of us would handle this scenario if we had a child this talented?

Bryce’s dad Ron says anyone who goes to the “stage parent” card doesn’t know them. The family does appear to be pretty close. In a wise move, they had Bryce’s older brother transfer from Cal St. Northridge to mentor him at CSN.

It all seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Bryce has his GED and will have a partial JC education, and in a few months might have $10 million, the first position player to reach that plateau for a signing bonus. Then, the story really begins. It remains to be seen how he will handle the pressure of being a professional, and being the #1 pick. We’ve seen “can’t miss” prospects, well, miss before.

As with other prospects, he’s only an injury away from being a memory. Discounting that for now, Bryce has impressive physical tools. He is listed at 6′ 3″ and 205 pounds but is probably larger. That’s imposing for a 17-year-old, but what will his physique be like at 25? Joe Mauer? Justin Upton? Adam Dunn?

Bryce seems to be aware of the blessing, and curse, that comes with being the possible #1 pick. He’s also aware that whenever he plays, people expect him to launch 500-foot jacks. When he failed to do so at a tournament in Oklahoma City, one fan could be heard to call out “overrated,” and he has even heard boos. He didn’t ask for any of that. and he isn’t getting paid yet.

Are there legitimate red flags? Two, possibly.

First, he is being “advised” by Scott Boras. Loosely translated, he is ready to soak baseball for all he’s worth before he even plays a pro game. Will Boras be willing to go below the Strasburg bonus of $15 million for a position player, even if he’s just 17? Remember, Bryce could easily return for another year at JC and re-emerge next year as an 18-year-old, and even more in demand. That is, barring injury.

Second, there are some troubling scouting reports on his personality. Bryce hasn’t begun compiling a rap sheet and seems to have a stable, albeit unusual family life. But Kevin Goldstein wrote in Baseball America that it’s hard to find any scout who doesn’t dislike the kid. Words such as “arrogant”, “jerk”, and “the anti-Joe Mauer” are tossed around. If that’s true, is it a problem? Only if it translates on the baseball field. Was it a problem for Barry Bonds?

If Bryce becomes uncoachable, unwilling to work on improving his considerable skills, it becomes a problem. However, if his attitude is simply baseball’s version of supreme confidence with a touch of cockiness, it is not. A kid this good, who has gotten the attention he’s received, probably thinks deep inside he is special. Not many JC players are signing autographs. That’s part of the deal in a society that idolizes singers, actors, celebrities,and athletes.

If he can’t respond well to adversity down the road, it’s a problem, but the national spotlight has already found him, with both positive and negative attention — and his awesome JC stats serve as a partial answer to how he might respond. In interviews, he doesn’t strike me as an arrogant kid, but there’s a quiet confidence that some can misinterpret. That could actually serve him well as he goes through the ups and downs of a pro career.

Obviously the scouts know him a little bit better than I do, but anyone who has studied Bryce even just a little can figure this much out — this kid absolutely loves baseball. That should also serve him well.

I’m not ahead of the curve on this one. The hype machine is already in second gear. Despite the possible red flags, Bryce’s talents will probably compel the Nationals to draft him and deal with Boras — after all, they have some experience in this area. Those negotiations will be fascinating, but not as interesting as what happens when the kid starts riding buses every week.

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